By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Yesterday, the Trump administration retracted a rule that would have cancelled visas and forced foreign students to leave the country if their institution offered only on-line instruction and they were unable to shift to institutions that offered face-to face course.
Leading universities, led by Harvard and MIT and joined by other academic institutions, had filed a legal challenge to the rule change, which had also been condemned by many businesses (see US student visa: Top universities back Harvard, MIT lawsuit). The rule change resolves the lawsuit.
Foreign students and global elites breathed a huge sign of relief. But the situation is not yet fully resolved, as Live Mint reports in In surprise move, Trump administration reverses course on barring many foreign students:
The government said it would drop the plan amid a legal challenge brought by universities. But a senior U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said the administration still intended to issue a regulation in the coming weeks addressing whether foreign students can remain in the United States if their classes move online.
The mooted Trump change further erodes confidence in U.S.policy and priorities, and the continued vacillation is, to undoubtedly unsettling for both current and future students alike. It will undoubtedly influence future recruitment.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif penned an op-ed in today’s New York Times stating the globalist case for foreign students in the United States,The Administration Retreated on Student Visas, but the Battle Isn’t Over:
Yet the larger battle is far from over. This misguided policy was one of many signals that the administration wants foreign students to stay away — an attitude that reflects a stark misreading of our national interest.
In any long-running competition, no one understands your strengths better than your rivals. At a dinner I attended a few years back, Chinese tech leaders contended that China’s most important economic advantage is scale: China’s vast population and market offer a permanent leg up. But they also remarked on America’s persistent advantage in scientific creativity.
To be sure, many of these students would like to stay in the United States – and that raises the immigration bugaboo:
The latest data show, for example, that 83 percent of Ph.D. students from China, the kind of highly trained scientists and engineers who drive American innovation, were still in the United States five years after completing their degrees.
The percentage would be higher if longstanding U.S. policies did not require many students to return home after finishing their education — a system as counterproductive as training a great player and then insisting that she go play for a rival team. Recently, the percentage of doctoral graduates remaining here has begun to decline, in part because our national message is that they are not welcome.
Now, I point out, the openness and attractiveness of leading universities is a longstanding virtue and dates at least to medieval times, when Oxford, the Sorbonne, and other places attracted scholars. I’m sure it extends well before then. So one can appreciate Reif’s argument and one would expect MIT to seek to attract able students from around the world. Yet part of the allure of universities is that they are supposed to be beyond nationality. I guess what bothers me is that he couches his argument in terms of what’s in the national interest. But perhaps I am just being idealistic, and even a bit naive.
Now, Reif fails to mention how important the roughly 1 miilion foreign students, many of whom pay full freight, are to the bottom line of many of our institutions of higher education – especially now, when COVID-19 poses considerable challenges for US colleges and universities, a topic Yves discussed in Universities in a Mess Over Upcoming Year; Some Reopenings Meeting Fierce Resistance. Universities need to balance competing priorities: educating students; ensuring the health of students, faculty and support staff; and earning revenues. In the initial phase of the pandemic, many moved to online learning; Several had announced plans to continue such policies next year – although many students grumble at being forced to pay full tuition for online classes. Yet faculty at institutions such as Georgia Tech equally object at having to teach in-person classes in the face of a pandemic – a type of objection that will only accelerate as and if COVID-19 fails to come under control.
Higher education remains one of the few US industries that remains world-beating and attracts many interested students per year. As readers are well aware, it fails to address the needs of. many potential students, and in many cases, fulfills more of a credentialing function than educating its students. And education is certainly ripe for comprehensive overhaul – one of the many where the status quo will not survive. It would be bizarre to say the least if the Trump administration sought to cut off universities from a leading revenue source in the midst of a pandemic.
But I have a bit of compassion for the students, thinking back to my days as a student, and how devastating it would have been to have my studies interrupted because the host country decided not to renew my visa.
I am a bit surprised to see Trump back down on this issue, as he generally not shied away from exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue goals that are popular with his base – despite their absence of practical effect (as I wrote in Trump Tweet: Will Issue Executive Order Temporarily Suspending All Immigration into the United States). I suspect this is an issue that doesn’t really resonate with his base, as compared to other immigration isses,
In that post, I discussed how Trump tweeted in March that he would temporarily suspend all legal immigration into the US, even though,widespread lockdowns and the closure of immigration services had practically speaking already constructively done so for him. Subsequent Trump policies have been unusually cruel – even when assessed against standard immigration benchmarks, which, let’s face it, are not particularly friendly to immigrants. Some of these policies have kept families divided, as one parent or both parents may have been out of the country when the ban occurred and thus unable to reunite with school age children.
The Bottom Line
So, for the time being, the visas of foreign students are spared. That will not resolve the longer-term challenges that confront U.S, institutions of higher education. And a larger issue looms: if the United states fails to control the COVID-19 pandemic, what parent, especially one that hails from a country that has done so, would encourage her or his child to study in the United states, notwithstanding the quality of instruction or the reputation of the institution. The same objection applies to the student. And becomes especially acute if the visa situation remains uncertain.